The European Union has warned online platforms such as Facebook and YouTube that they will face regulation unless they bolster their efforts to fight fake news.
Brussels has given the web giants until July to draw up a voluntary code of conduct including measures to eliminate bots and fake accounts, make sponsored content more transparent, and help authorities and fact-checkers monitor fake news more easily.
The code must restrict and reduce revenues earned by those spreading fake news and “reduce targeting options” for political advertising, the commission said on Thursday before adding that the code must only be a first step towards stamping out disinformation online.
The move comes amid unprecedented scrutiny of Facebook after allegations that Cambridge Analytica mined data to sway the US presidential election. Elections for the European Parliament will be held in May next year.
Sir Julian King, Britain’s EU commissioner, who is responsible for security, said the code would be voluntary but binding rules could follow if it was ignored.
He told reporters that he had a serious message to the online platforms and warned that if progress was not made, “we will consider our options again”.
Sir Julian said that the internet had a dark side and that fake news was a “real threat to the stability of our societies and our democratic institutions”.
“We are effectively in a kind of combat but it’s a new kind of combat without any rules of engagement,” he said after pointing out that Russian military doctrine explicitly recognises information warfare as one of its weapons.
Brussels will also establish an independent network of fact-checkers to scrutinise content published online and called on national governments to support “quality journalism”.
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“This is a million miles away from censorship,” said Sir Julian, who added that the targeting of fake news would not be aimed at the “rich tradition of partisan journalism” in Britain.
The commission will also launch tenders for the "production and dissemination of quality news content on EU affairs" and plans a communications strategy to counter “false narratives about Europe”.